Whatever else one might say about Martha Raddatz’s moderating of the VP debate, she did Paul Ryan a favor by starting the debate with a question about Libya. Joe Biden tried to change the subject to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the diversion failed because Ryan stayed after him on the issue (I wish Ryan had done so more consistently).
Biden tried to minimize the damage through dishonesty. When Ryan pointed out that our mission in Libya had asked for more security personnel, Biden claimed that the administration wasn’t aware of any such request. He said: “We weren’t told they wanted more security; we did not know they wanted more security there.”
Yet, as Josh Rogin points out, two security officials who worked for the State Department in Libya during the relevant time period testified before Congress that they repeatedly requested more security, and two State Department officials admitted they had denied those requests. Indeed, Eric Nordstrom, the top regional security officer in Libya during the summer, testified that Charlene Lamb, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, turned down his request for more security.
Biden was therefore being dishonest when he claimed that the Obama administration wasn’t told about the need for more security personnel. Perhaps Biden and Obama weren’t told personally, but Obama cannot duck responsibility on this basis. As president, he is charged with putting together a team that will address major security issues that are brought to the State Department’s attention. On this one, the buck stops with Obama.
Biden also tried to dance his way around the fact that the administration put out false information on the nature of the attack in Benghazi, claiming that it was a protest, not a terrorist attack. He blamed the intelligence community, insisting that the administration simply relayed the intelligence it was given.
This dodge too appears to be dishonest. Jonathan Tobin notes that, according to reports, the intelligence community knew within 24 hours of the attack that it was an instance of terrorism, not a protest that got out of hand. It is difficult to imagine how it could have concluded otherwise, given the way the attack was carried out.
But if, somehow, the intelligence community did provide the Obama administration with information that gave rise to its false statements about the Benghazi attack (including Susan Rice’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows), then our intelligence apparatus is broken. The responsibility for the breakdown lies with the president.
Will Biden get away with his dishonesty on this issue? I doubt it. First, although most viewers don’t have the facts about Benghazi at their fingertips, they could at least tell that Biden was furiously trying to shift responsibility. Americans expect more from their top leaders.
Second, this story isn’t going away. And part of the story consists of what many believe is a coverup. Biden’s statements during the debate can be viewed as a continuation of the coverup. As such, they take on special importance.
We’ll see whether Obama follows Biden’s unbecoming blame-shifting approach when he debates Mitt Romney next week. I don’t know that he has much choice.